Written by Marco di Francesco
for Prof. Charlotte Hussey
Marie de France was a medieval poet of the 12th century, whose works were very well known in the Royal Court of King Henry II of England. Living in an era where the majority of the population was illiterate, Marie was of the very few women privileged enough to be educated by the scholars and clerics, who mainly prioritized teaching men. As a result, her works generally had feminist themes and ideas linked to them. She often implicitly presented Guinevere and the Lady of Aquitaine in her lais and glorified them as powerful and influential queens of the land. In fact, many of the women in her lais are depicted to have immense power, human or fey. Being a poet for the ladies of the court, her themes generally revolved around true love and so, Marie demonstrates women’s power to initiate, control, and end a relationship.
In both Lanval and Yonec, the human and faery woman are the ones who initiate the relationship with their male, be they human or fey. The faery woman from Lanval uses her high status and faery charm to initiate a relationship. When Lanval takes a break from his journey and rests along the side of the water, he is approached by two beautiful women. Without any introduction, the two woman tell Lanval that they have been sent to him by a seemingly perfect damsel, for she has an eye on him. “Come with us and we will take you to her safely” (Knight 108) they tell him, and he follows. This is a major indicator of this “perfect damsel’s” power and is one way Marie de France demonstrates the power she believes women hold. The damsel need not move from her tent, and the man she desires is escorted to her. Upon seeing her, he immediately falls in love with her beauty and charm. However, the woman now holds the decision of establishing the relationship. Again, this is another one of Marie de France’s successful attempts at demonstrating the power this woman holds, for any other man would have “had his way” with such a beautiful woman as seen in other lais. The faery of course confirms the connection between her and Lanval: “I love you above all else” (108). She not only initiates the relationship in reaching out for Lanval, but she also says the exact words he, as a distressed knight, needs to hear.
Marie de France continues to demonstrate a woman’s ability to initiate a relationship in Yonec; however, this time, it is a mortal woman loving a faery man. She is locked in a tower for many years and she reaches a point where she has lost all hope of returning to a normal life. She pleads to God to have a knight sent to rescue her, and surely, her wish is granted. A shapeshifting hawk flies through her window and turns into a very handsome man. After introducing himself, he explains that “[he] could not come to [her] nor leave [his] country until [she] wished for [him]” (Knight 119). The woman’s wish is the reason for their meeting. He continues to express his love for the woman, but unlike Lanval, the mortal of this lai does not fall for the faery’s charm. She has the power to put her faith before his alluring faery beauty and states that “she would make him her lover provided he believed in God” (119). Had he not accepted the terms, she would not have been his lover and she would have resisted the faery charm. This woman shows immense willpower, for almost every mortal man in Breton lais and Marie de France’s lais proves to be weak and falls under the faery’s spell.
The power of a woman in the two lais is continually shown in the woman’s ability to carry out the relationship. With the establishment of the geiss, the faery essentially keeps Lanval bounded to their relationship. She ensures that he does not expose her (for some period of time, at least) and in this way, he remains faithful to her. Though not being present in the knight’s daily life for she chooses to stay in the forest, she is still able to control his actions regarding his trust for her. This manipulation from afar is another sign of a very powerful person. In Yonec, the faery knight explicitly states that the mortal woman is in control of their meetings: “Whenever it pleases you, I shall be with you within the hour” (Knight 120), and she is to wish for him as she did the first time. Without these wishes, the knight will not come, and the relationship will cease to exist. Once again, the woman of this lai has so much power that she is able to call upon a faery whenever she pleases.
Marie de France concludes her demonstration of women’s power by showing their ability to end a relationship. The faery in Lanval, furious with her lover after he breaks the geiss, now holds all the power in the relationship. While he struggles to prove his lover exists in the kingdom, the faery remains in the forest making his life a living Hell, for her presence in the kingdom would end his struggles. Simply by her presence, she can control the outcome of their relationship. Unlike most faeries, she is merciful and comes to the court to prove her existence. She leaves the court and “[Lanval] went off with her to Avalon” (Knight 115). This ending was purposefully written not only to prove that she has the power to potentially end the relationship, but she also has the power to reinitiate it and start the cycle anew. The woman in Yonec demonstrates her power in a very different way, for death was the cause of the end of her relationship. With his prophetic faery abilities, the knight warns his lover: “be careful we are not discovered. The old woman will betray us and keep watch over us night and day if she notices” (120). The warning is very clear and even provides the woman with the person who would be on the lookout for her. However, blinded by the power she has to control the meetings with the knight, she is not careful and is caught by the old lady. Her carelessness with power is what will later lead to the death of her lover as one of their meetings is predicted and he is wounded. The human woman in this relationship is indirectly the cause of the end of her relationship. In addition, she is also the indirect cause of a faery’s death, which requires an immense amount of power.
It is through their control over a relationship, from start to end, that Marie de France demonstrates the power women wield. Whether human or fey, the women of Lanval and Yonec prove to have an enormous amount of power in their abilities to not only control a relationship from near or far, but also to be the cause of a faery’s death.
Knight, Gareth. Faery Loves and Faery Lais. Skylight, 2012.
About the Author:
I wrote this essay for my 103 English class taught by Charlotte Hussey. The class focused on fairy folklore in medieval times and was very interesting. As a second year Health Science student, I’m almost constantly studying math and science so the topic of supernatural beings and their powers (which go against all sciences) was a nice release. Despite loving math and physics, I am really interested in the fantasy genre and some unscientific topics like astrology. I am currently waiting on an interview offer for McGill Med-P but I have already been accepted to my back-up, McGill Physics.